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The Work of Memory


One of the most anxiety producing parts of being a social work intern is having to write process recordings every week. Some schools have moved onto a much simpler format for these, with two pages of basic description (and evaluation) of a meeting with a client, but my school, and many others, still use a long form that includes: a word for word (approximately) transcript of the conversation, a column to point out the skills the student tried to use, a column for the analysis of events that happened, and a column for the feelings and doubts of the student throughout the interview. On the first page of the process recording, there’s also a section for a description of the who, what, when, where, and why of the meeting, and on the last page there are questions to help you analyze the meeting’s success overall.


“What is she talking about?”

My early process recordings averaged 13 pages, for one client meeting, and one was up to eighteen pages (my supervisor was not in love with that). The hardest part, for me, is the word for word transcript. Obviously it’s not an exact record of what the client and I said, because I don’t tape my meetings and because I don’t have that kind of memory. In fact, each transcript takes me three or four passes, at least, to get it into the semblance of a back and forth conversation similar to what really happened (though, given that each of my meetings is an hour or so, a lot still gets left out).

I can’t imagine Cricket or Butterfly trying to reconstruct a word for word, or bark for bark, transcript of their day. Their sense of time is, to say the least, imprecise. Cricket forgets how long it’s been since she last saw Grandma. A minute could have passed since Grandma went downstairs for the mail, but when she returns, Cricket greets her as if she’s been gone for days. If she tried to record that event, there would probably be twenty pages in the middle, filled with despair and resentment, as if she’d been lost in the desert without water, for years.


“Oh my God! Oh my God! Where were you?!!!!!”

For official purposes at my internship, I have to write out a summary of each of my meetings, and that gives me a general record to start from for the process recordings. For those reports, I describe what we talked about in the meeting, and what we resolved for the client to do by next week, etc. But to get those notes into dialogue form, I need to pull a lot more from my memory, and fill in the transitions between topics, and focus on particularly difficult moments: how we get from topic A to topic Z; what order things came up in; Did I say something to bring this up, or did it come out of nowhere; when I was overwhelmed and unsure what to say; when I thought I did well.

I often wonder if the work of remembering is this hard for everyone, or if it’s a specific problem for me, because my brain seems to store things out of order and scattered in various corners instead of in a more linear fashion. I dread doing these process recordings every week, but once they’re done, I feel like I really learned something, about myself, about the client, and about how I want to proceed. I resent having to do them, and yet I hope we don’t switch to the short form, because this method has been my best learning tool, and the best way for me to really resolve the leftover feelings I have after a session with a client.

Ideally, I would become so practiced that I could knock off a process recording in an hour. Then I could do one on every client meeting, or on my own therapy sessions, or on the news shows that drive me nuts. I could write out each of my interactions with the dogs to see where I’m going wrong: like, why is Butterfly still so stubborn about who should be in charge of her leash (I think it’s me, and she thinks I’m wrong)? Maybe there’s a secret hidden in plain sight, and if I could just diagram every moment, I could figure out what I’ve been missing.


“I will stay right here, looking adorable, until I get what I want.”

Maybe that’s what Cricket is really doing while she seems to be chewing on her feet: she’s processing, and analyzing, and deciding how she wants to handle things the next time I do something that bothers her – like when I say No, or Quiet, or I fail to give her treats when she wants them. Maybe she’s doing this all day long, and sharing her realizations with her sister, and that’s why they keep outsmarting me. That could also explain why they are so exhausted all the time.

It’s a theory.


“Getting Mommy to do everything we want, every day, is exhausting.”

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

76 responses »

  1. I cannot imagine trying to be present to the client and at the same time knowing that you are also having to be a recording observer. I get exhausted thinking about it! I don’t wonder that it makes you anxious. May the dogs keep you grounded.

  2. You need a parrot. If you forget something, the bird can repeat what was said verbatim.

  3. Butterfly, you are so adorable that you can have anything you want. Yes, that sounds fair.

  4. hairytoegardener

    When I was a student nurse (haven’t nursed in years) I remember having to write out patient care plans that were sometimes18 pages and, my goodness, they were exhausting. This is what I thought of when you wrote about your process recordings although my care plans never required recording a patient. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. I wish you the best.

    • Eighteen pages?! I have friends who are nurses and I remember them telling met hat you get so busy you forget to go to the bathroom for a whole shift. I couldn’t imagine that, until now. My mind gets so busy, there’s no room anything else.

  5. When I was substitute teaching, I found it much easier to write my notes to the regular teacher throughout the day( like at lunch and recess or specials) rather than trying to remember who did what and how far we got at the end of the day☺. Maybe some format similar could make these easier. I’m glad it’s been a good learning tool for you.

  6. Are you allowed to record your sessions? Then you could try voice to text transcription. I’m not sure that that actually works very well, though.

  7. Yes, it is really exhaustive!!

  8. Jennifer Barraclough

    I too would be hard pressed to recall what was said. I believe there’s evidence for genetic variation in memory. One friend of mine has written a 3-volume autobiography based on being able to remember detailed conversations ever since childhood. A mixed blessing to have that ability, perhaps.

  9. I think it’s hilarious when my daughter’s doggies act like she’s been gone forever and she only went upstairs for a minute. It’s a great reception coming back down the stairs. LOL My hat’s off to you in your quest for social work. I know I couldn’t do it and admire those who can.

  10. I can’t imagine the challenge of your work. You do, at least, have your two very sweet dogs to help keep you amused and relaxed!

  11. All that remembering and writing is a real mental exercise! Great that you approach it from a learning standpoint, even if it is real drudgery. Butterfly is too adorable 🙂

  12. Your job sounds like hard work, but you write about it in a very funny way. This post made me laugh!

  13. I’m laughing and thinking of your challenges and soon happy that you have your pups!!

  14. These days most of my memory work revolves around learning tunes on the banjo. Sometimes I have a devil of a time getting a tune to stick, and then those tunes I have to keep playing or they will become fugitive and drift away. Yet other tunes I can remember easily and don’t tend to forget. It is easier for me to memorize a tune if I learn it from someone playing it slowly on a video than if I try to learn it from banjo tab. I think it is because my brain tries to take the lazy way out and rely on the notation but when I learn from a video that is impossible.

    • So Interesting! I remember learning songs on the piano and memorizing the notation, so that instead of remembering how the keys felt under my fingers, I was picturing the notation and translating it onto the keys anew each time. No wonder it all took so long!

  15. Thank you for this post, it gave me a big smile! And now I am wondering if my furbabies are analyzing my interactions with them so they can decide how to be most effective at getting what they want. “Harry … after a contemplative hour grooming myself, and processing and analyzing information, I think Mom is more responsive to my needs and wakes up quicker when I flop on her face in the morning instead of flopping on her chest.”

  16. Rachel, thanks for sharing this onerous task. Yet, it is important to get it right. Best wishes in that endeavor. Keith

  17. Rachel, it sounds like this mental exercise is as much to help you to analyse what happened as a “report” or “log” of it. That sounds like a smart way to teach, as well as to learn. Many kudos to you.

  18. Those weekly reports appear to be somewhat onerous. If Socrates had known about this kind of thing he would have been less keen on commenting about the unexamined life not being worth living.

  19. For the legal investigations I do, I conduct interviews for which I need an accurate summary of what we discussed for our file. My auditory memory is not as good as I would like it to be, so I take really good notes as we talk. It makes the summary go very smooth and easily. I have concocted a few of my own abbreviations to make it go faster, and it doesn’t seem to interfere with the interview. It slows it slightly, but I write really fast (and abbreviate a lot). At the end, I have a written summary of what I asked, what they answered, and any behavior that could indicate truthfulness (or not). That way, I don’t have to remember every word; I have it written down. When I see the words of my notes, it helps me recall the entire sentence that was spoken, more or less. It helps if I type up the full record right after the interview, before I’ve forgotten what my abbreviations and arrows might mean!

    I’m glad you found a good learning tool; I just hope that it could get easier to use.

  20. Oh how I can relate Rachel (as well as hairytoegardner & your response)! I’m working with my sister for a geriatric doctor now and we are having a ‘similar issue’. Not only is MY menopausal mind also going (not sure where sometimes -lol), but our poor doctor is 76 & is still old-school! But now the ‘system’ is coming down on him for still having hand-written charts (they can’t read). For the next few weeks, we have 27 charts to type into the EDRS system, which is every little note HE records (adult family home patients get monthly or more visits) and they want them for the past 5 years! UGH!!
    The problem my sister and I have is that WE have to ‘fluff’ them – aka, embellish/add to his routine write-ups. This is where my writing will have to come into play… and like you, where I have to try to recall phone calls, caregiver information, etc.
    I think my next herbal supplement will be Ginkogeloba – or what’s that stupid drug called? HAHA

  21. It is a very big ask to do all this from memory and accurately too. It will be great once you are allowed to record your conversations because then you can get a really interesting insight into the conversational flow, discover the subtle ‘buffer devices’ used by clients when they want to introduce a new topic into the conversation (such as an in-breath to try and generate a pause long enough to switch, which can be so easily missed when you are talking yourself).

  22. I’m old enough to finally understand that some of the seemingly mindless exercises my mentors put me through were designed to give me the mental rigor to grasp the subject they were teaching. Guaranteed, when you are a full-fledged social worker, you’ll find your own efficient ways to do things.

  23. In my case with the dissociative identity disorder, bipolar disorder, and seizure disorder diagnosed in my opinion this process is excellent for self discovery and makes living a journey of self -discovery and acceptence

  24. Priceless post, Rachel! Clearly you’ve figured it out; “…this method has been my best learning tool, and the best way for me to really resolve the leftover feelings I have after a session with a client.”
    Well expressed. Human services work certainly does take us on journeys of self-understanding. Not easy, but necessary.

    Having our sweet doggie-woggies to consult with is always a comfort!

  25. My word, the paperwork! Interesting take on how you can look into yourself with this, though.

  26. Hi Rachel,
    I’ve been so caught up in Tasmania this year, that I’ve lost touch a bit. My apologies. I have had extensive help to improve my memory over the years. Association has been one of the best techniques and then there’s also repetition. Visualization also helps me. Also, there would be repetition in these interviews and patterns, which would help you remember perhaps.
    The fact that you’re getting so many pages down, shows you must be doing a pretty good job remembering anyway.
    With your interest in social work, psychology and people, I thought you would find this situation interesting. Last night, was the Australian TV Logie Awards. The guy who won the Gold Logie had played Molly Meldrum in a series, who used to be the host of Countdown, a music show back in the 70s and 80s. Awhile back, he fell of a ladder and sustained a significant head injury. I haven’t seen him in the public eye much since. However, he ended up giving a speech at the awards on live TV for the Logies and kept talking, talking and talking using loads of expletives and was also a bit inappropriate. And still kept going. You could see the gold logie winner looking very uncomfortable and others not knowing what to do. I found this follow-up article tonight:
    For me, this raises important issues about protecting people’s dignity and public image once something like this or Alzheimers set in. I thought his behaviour was quite predictable and they should have had an OT there to guide him. In some ways it was good that it went to air because so many things are scripted to death and it’s important to see real.
    Anyway, thought you’d be interested.
    xx Rowena

    • Wow! It’s such a difficult line to manage, between allowing people to retain their independence, and protecting them from their disorder. The big concern is that, in the aftermath, he could experience a lot of shame that will set him back in his progress. I hope he has someone he trusts who can reach out and offer help.

  27. Another great essay. I love the way you weave your insights about work/life with Cricket and Butterfly. Your process tool sounds exhausting but as you said also worthwhile. It’s somewhat similar to the process I use when I interview someone and write a story (as a freelance journalist). I don’t tape, prefer to take notes. Then I type them up and read them over several times until a unifying theme or approach hits me. What is this person trying to say? What is the main message? This thinking is not easy work and I resist it, but once I get through it, how great!

  28. Goodness, I’m not sure I could cope with that my memory is terrible, but its interesting that you’ve found it so useful a process. Perhaps my memory would improve if I had to exercise it so often?
    I love how my dogs live in the now and are excited by things that happen every day, or even several times a day, like me returning to the room! One of my dogs hates the rain, but if its raining out the back door she’ll optimistically run to the front door, always hopeful that it might be dry out there! I wish I had a fraction of their optimism and enthusiasm.

  29. I agree the work of remembering is hard. I really appreciate the fact that you see this long process as a learning tool. You are making an investment in your clients and in your success as a social worker.

  30. And we don’t remember anything other than the continuing present happiness which enfolds our lives. It seems like five minutes since our last meal, however! Pip

  31. Doing “notes” was the bane of my existence There were some ocassions when I would be with the client and family for 6 – 8 hours and the notes would also

  32. travelfeverstories2017

    My memory is certainly becoming hazier by the day – I remember back as a teen thinking how older ppl (and everyone was old then 😊) are weird because they don’t remember where they put things and such. Well, it’s not so funny now as I am getting older 😁. I can go to the next room and I wonder what the heck I came to do here…and even worse, I can’t recollect what day it was when smth happened, so it’s a good thing I don’t write my blog in any chronological order…😁. Good luck with the notes!


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